I want to talk about adultism. It is one of many
“isms” in our vocabulary – racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and so on –
which address discrimination on the basis of things like ethnicity, economic
status, gender, sexual orientation, age, and physical abilities. Many of
us try to overturn these “isms” in our own lives and in the broader culture.
But adultism is one “ism” that isn’t so often dealt with – even by progressives.
In fact, I think that it may be the last frontier of “isms.” And that may
be because its pervasiveness makes it almost invisible.
In our culture (and many, if not most, others in
the world), adults have a special status of control over kids. Adults make
decisions for their own and other people’s children, create rules that govern
children’s day-to-day lives, and generally tell them what to do. That often
manifests in ordering, directing, preaching, disciplining, demeaning, embarrassing,
questioning, patting and other touching without permission, yanking, ignoring,
yelling, and referring to children in the third person.
This behavior isn’t usually undertaken with abusive
intent; indeed, most adults wield power over kids because they assume it’s
their duty, as well as their right. Adults are thought to be entitled to
these behaviors on the assumptions that they are superior to children and
young people, and that they know best what’s good for the younger generation.
Scratch below the surface, and you’ll find that this
sort of adult disrespect is inherited. It’s how we were treated as children
by our parents and in our schools…and how our parents were treated by the
generation before that. And it’s reinforced by other social institutions
like churches and medical systems, as well as by laws. The context of the
adult-child relationship in our society is power, hierarchy, mistrust, and
One of the places that adultism manifests itself
is our education system. Most people believe that children and young people
must be made to go to school or else they won’t learn. So we have created
factories in which children are processed and warehouses where they are
stored until it’s convenient for adults to have them around. Getting rid
of the factory model of public education challenges not just our assumptions
about how children learn, but a variety of agendas related to adultism and
other sorts of power.
I wrote about this in the introduction to my book
Challenging Assumptions in Education
– From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society:
“By our very use of words like ‘teaching’ and
‘schooling,’ we seem to accept the idea that some people at the top are
doing things to other people farther down the totem pole. Public education
reflects our society’s paternalistic, hierarchical worldview, which exploits
children in the same way it takes the earth’s resources for granted. That
is no way to help children grow up into compassionate citizens who think
independently and participate in the life of their communities and countries.”
Arguing against adultism is difficult. Giving up
power can make people fearful and leave them feeling threatened. They think
“unschooling” means unparenting, and life learning means being uneducated.
But life learners are at the leading edge of an important
attempt to broaden the definition of childhood, to respect children as whole
people who are functioning members of society…and to improve our education
system along the way.
Since we are already living the opposite of adultism,
I believe that we life learners can contribute to the defeat of adultism
by being conscious about how we speak to (and about) children, and by how
we treat them. Both the behavior of respecting children that we model to
other adults and the effect on our children of that fair treatment will
help slay this last “ism” dragon.
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Life Learning Magazine. She is the
mother of two adult daughters who learned without school, has been an advocate
of self-directed education for over 45 years, and is the author of 13 books.